A Musician Exposed – The Alexander Technique and Music

Article added October 8, 2010

By Cat Jary

As a young girl, music and performing were an absolute joy. Life was full, with as many music related activities as I could possibly squeeze in: learning the cello and piano, happily playing solos in concerts and festivals, as well as enjoying being a member of various orchestras and choirs.

As a teenager, music started to become more of an effort. Practising hurt: Causing cramp in the left arm, backache and a pain in the right shoulder. Playing in tune and above a mezzo-piano were a challenge with these problems. Besides, there didn’t seem much point in practising. Although I was a good sight-reader, I never seemed to progress much beyond this standard. At times I’d try really hard, when an important audition or exam were looming, but no matter how hard I tried, the effort I put in never matched the results that came out. Solos were my biggest nightmare and I usually avoided them, with the excuse I had nothing to play. Exams had to be passed, both in order to prove I was still as good as my rivals, and to help me get where I wanted to be – on stage as a professional musician. Despite the difficulties and setbacks, the occasional highs kept me hooked. By my twenties there was more pain than pleasure and I was forced to try a different approach. An osteopath suggested Alexander Technique could help.

Musician or Alexandroid; Puritan or Fun?

I assumed that by doing Alexander Technique I would have to sacrifice my “work hard/play hard” kind of life for a puritanical lifestyle. If it meant I could carry on playing, then that would be the price I had to pay.

When my musician friends found out I was going to take the Technique further than lessons, and train for three years to be an Alexander Teacher, they thought I’d totally lost the plot. It was a bit out the blue, though I hadn’t been completely honest with them, and told anyone the extent of the pain.
Sensible questions they challenged me with varied from:

Q: Does this mean you are giving up playing?
A: Certainly not, it’s the one thing that’s going to help me continue playing.

Q: How can you afford to do it?
A: The way things are going, I can’t afford not to. (I was on the verge of having to stop playing.)

Q: How can you give it all up? (The move from Sheffield to London had implications for the house, job, pupils, gigs, and social life)
A: Ok, it’s a risk, but I’ll slide into a rut in all areas of my life if I don’t give it a try. I want a challenge.

Q: How can it benefit musicians? It’s just all about posture isn’t it?
A: No, it’s not just all about posture.

Q: So what is it then?
A: Good question, I’m not exactly sure, but something to do with change.

Q: So how will it change you?
A: Well, if I knew the answer to that, I wouldn’t need to do it, would I.

This suggestion of ‘change’ posed the biggest risk. Would I start to look fragile or rigid, move strangely, or worse, start living a pure and wholesome life? Basically, was life as I knew it over?

I arrived at the Alexander training school convinced it was an ‘either/or’ scenario: – music or Alexander. Secretly it suited me to think of Alexander as a rather dull, mundane world, where the heat would be turned down.

I tried to be a model student – quiet, shy, keen to learn. I knew I could keep it up four days a week, because I could go back to my old ways at weekends, partying with friends in Sheffield. I quickly realised this wasn’t ideal, and it just made me feel like I had a split personality. Which was the adopted image and which was my true identity? I knew I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, in the mistaken belief that this is what people wanted. This wasn’t the first time, and it always led to confusing situations and scenarios that I was tired of repeating. I started to worry about what would happen if my two circles of friends ever met, (highly unlikely but not impossible.)

One morning at the Alexander school, my cover was blown. One of the teachers said, “Cat, I don’t think you’re really a ‘good girl’”. This wasn’t just about posture was it? This was about being challenged to the very core of my identity. I felt terrible, like a traitor, and so exposed. What would this mean for my training? This opened up a whole can of worms.
All my life, some part of me had been trying to be a ‘good girl’, with varying degrees of success. In my own way I’d already made attempts to stop being too much of a ‘good girl’, but just ended up in hot water, with a pendulum swinging between two extremes.

The move to London was a chance to start again, but I couldn’t really because old habits die-hard. The ‘good girl’ had taken over again. But now an Alexander teacher had found me out. I panicked. If I wasn’t going to be a ‘good girl’ any more, what should I do instead? It was too awful (and exciting) to contemplate. On some level though I knew this was central to my struggles with music and the cello.

Awareness and Choices

Challenging me actually gave me a choice. Carry on as I was, or take a risk and see what happens. My whole life stretched before me. It didn’t take long for me to make my choice. Even though I knew my big overall pattern, I was not aware of all the little ways in which it manifested itself all day long in my behaviour. Gradually the Alexander work started making sense. I started to recognise and be aware of the gestures, postures and expressions that I adopted in order to be a ‘good girl’. I had overdeveloped one aspect at the expense of others, and now this was shaping much of what I was doing.

I realised music was caught up in my two extremes. To cope with this struggle I had adopted a ‘performing’ position, which meant I sat up really tall, braced myself and held it there for the whole performance, irrespective of what was going on in the music. Gradually it became not just the place I performed from, but rehearsed and practised from, until ultimately it was my cello playing position. From this completely fixed, stuck place I tried to play.

I had played this way for so long, it would be tough to break the habit. On the other hand pain was making it virtually impossible to carry on anyway. Once again, I faced the same choice: carry on as you are or take a risk and see what happens. It was a huge risk, to challenge something so carefully developed and trained and expose the musician behind the façade.

At the Alexander school, the teachers’ hands helped prevent me from automatically going into my patterns, and I could experience different possibilities. It felt strange and wrong, both physically and characteristically, but both the ‘good girl’ and the ‘performer’ were losing their hold over me.

I don’t think our deep-rooted habits ever stop trying to mould us, but recognising patterns is part of the battle. Challenges, decisions and risks are part of life, but now I know when the old patterns are trying to govern my choices.

Reactions, Pendulums and Balance

I have met plenty of people who know and recognise their old patterns, but when it comes down to it, can’t help but fall back into old ways.
Usually when we give something up, we react and instantly try to fill the gap with something else, often the exact opposite. The pendulum swings violently in the other direction. The newly adopted strategy works for a while, and it can be exciting, novel, fresh and liberating. Then something happens, we feel out of our depth and come unstuck. Seeking the safety of older more tried and tested ways, the pendulum swings back in the other direction.

This isn’t the Alexander way. In Alexander we are taught not to react, or ‘do nothing’. Mistakenly I always thought ‘do nothing’ meant nothing ever happened. I’ve come to learn it means stop doing what you are doing, and don’t try to do something else either. Just see what happens. Once the pendulum stops swinging, a more balanced approach becomes established as the norm. Something else emerges naturally, and from this stable place it’s a lot easier to develop other aspects. The extremes are still there, but no longer as an ‘either/or’ way of life.

When I entered the training, I had no idea that Alexander could be relevant for these sorts of patterns. Balance to my mind was linked to perfect positions.

One of the most shocking aspects of the Technique for me was to realise that it could help me live the life I wanted, instead of dishing out a string of rigid ‘do’s and don’ts’. I had no idea how trapped inside I was. No wonder I was in pain and the music wasn’t flowing.

Other Peoples’ Expectations – Herbal Teas and Early Nights?

The majority of musicians who find out I do Alexander Technique meet me with a mixture of reactions, ranging from polite interest, to pity, jokes and ridicule. The general assumption is that if I am an Alexander Teacher, I am automatically a ‘good girl’.

I could relate numerous anecdotes as to fellow musicians’ reactions, but the following is one of my favourites.

During the summer of 2003 I was on a youth orchestra tour as the Alexander Technique teacher. The guy I sat next to on the plane was really a brass player, but on this tour he was the stage manager. On board we got off to a flying start. Before takeoff he had introduced me to most of the orchestra, by announcing to everyone within listening range that he’d drawn the short straw and was to sit next to the Alexander Teacher. Well, at least everyone knew who I was. He just couldn’t disguise his glee when he realised the in-flight entertainment this could provide. He started asking questions about posture and the Technique. Knowing the poor guy was trapped for a few hours, I decided to make the most of it and introduced him to some of the ideas Alexander discusses in his books. Besides, it was a good opportunity for me to fine tune parts of the workshop I would be giving that evening. Before we knew it, the plane was landing.

After the workshop we caught up with each other again, in the bar. He didn’t seem overly pleased to see me. He warned everyone they’d better drink up, before I gave them all a lecture and sent them off to bed early. I laughed and said ‘Why on earth do you think I am going to do that?’ “It’s your job as the Alexander Teacher,” he informed me. This was the first I knew of it. He continued, “Why else would you be up so late anyway?” It wasn’t late, only 1030, what was he on about? Half expecting a lecture on early nights, they decided to get a round in anyway. Someone lit a cigarette, and there was a hushed silence as they all looked at me. Surely this would provoke the lecture. They pushed it one stage further and offered to buy me a drink, safe in the knowledge the Alexander Teacher would either order a herbal tea or go to bed. Now there’s a time and a place for herbal tea, but this wasn’t one of them. As the night progressed, they concluded I couldn’t possibly be a real Alexander Teacher.

Later on in the tour my friend surprised himself by coming for a session, (of his own free will,) curious to know how the ideas related to the practical work. He survived the lesson, and that night in the bar was heard to say, “that Alexander, he was on to something”.

So Has Life Changed?

Yes, but not in the way I was expecting. I’ve not had to “change my life”. I still enjoy a ‘work hard/play hard’ kind of life, and if anything, Alexander has helped me to really live it to the full. I went to the Alexander training course in order to stop the pain so I could carry on playing the cello. I ended up on a journey full of surprises. The route was a long one, but I have found that it is the most challenging, stimulating, fascinating thing I’ve ever undertaken, and at last, the effort I put into something is generously rewarded with results.

Cat Jary is a visiting Trainer at the Alexander Teacher Training School, and is Director of the Alexander Music School.

For information about courses and events at the Alexander Music School, please visit www.alexandermusicschool.com

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